On July 17, 1794, sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiègne, a city some forty miles northwest of Paris, were among the forty persons Paris' Revolutionary Tribunal condemned to die that evening as "enemies of the people" in a public execution at the Place de la Nation. What was unusual was that the sixteen nuns, voices raised in song as they climbed the steps of the guillotine, actually praised God for confirming his mercy on them in allowing them to be sacrificed. Eyewitnesses reported that the intensity of their devotion imposed on that evening's bloody scene of mass execution a respectful silence that was unique in the annals of Paris' Great Terror.
Shortly after the notorious September massacres of 1792, when hundreds of arrested clergy, including the Carmelite's own bishop, had been summarily butchered in Paris' prisons by intoxicated mercenaries during a three-day blood-orgy that astounded all Europe, Madame Lidoine, the Carmelites' remarkable Prioress, had united the nuns in offering a daily "Act of Consecration" whereby they offered themselves as "victims of holocaust" to God that their sacrifice might restore peace to France and to her severely threatened Church. By the time of their execution this act had been offered daily for some twenty-two months. In praising God for finally accepting their sacrifice, the Carmelites were therefore doing far more than merely mouthing the words: "Praise the Lord, all ye nations! For His mercy is confirmed on us!"
The French church was indeed under serious threat. The venerable seven-day week of Judeo-Christian culture had been outlawed and weeks of ten days inaugurated. Enlightened revolutionaries no longer wanted anything whatsoever to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and His creation of the world in seven days. Sunday mass was forbidden as were all religious vows. Monasteries and convents had been closed and church property confiscated by the government to pay for the Revolution.
Although Rome beatified the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne as martyrs in 1906, the fact that they are remembered today is largely due to a novella by the German Catholic writer, Baroness Gertrud von Le Fort, that features a completely fictional heroine. Published in German in 1931 as The Last One at the Scaffold, it appeared in English as Song at the Scaffold.
Gertrud von Le Fort wrote her novella to exorcise her own terror at the rise of Hitler, projecting her own fears and misgivings onto an imaginary French novice-heroine, Blanche de la Force, the daughter of a Marquis, who bears a French version of her own noble name. Blanche joins the historical Compiègne Carmel just as the French Revolution is tightening its noose around the Church. Terrified, she struggles, then flees before returning to die with the community as "the last one at the scaffold."
The essential and, one might say, profoundly mystical link joining Poulenc's opera to the German novella, however, was to be provided by Georges Bernanos' Dialogues des Carmélites. This text, slightly abridged, provided Poulenc with an incomparable libretto.
Less than a year before Bernanos' death on July 5, 1948, the fatally ill author signed a contract with a young Dominican priest, Father Raymond Brückberger, to furnish the dialogues for Brückberger's film adaptation of The Last One at the Scaffold, authorized by Gertrud von Le Fort. Knowing that he was dying, Bernanos fused the absolute certainty of his own approaching demise with the inevitability of the Carmelites' destruction, giving his dialogues a rare intensity. Rejected as "too literary" for Brückberger's film, Bernanos' dialogues were published posthumously. Francis Poulenc fortuitously fell upon a copy of Bernanos' dialogues at the very moment he was searching for a religious subject for a new opera that he had been commissioned to write for La Scala.
The captivating story of Blanche de la Force must be set aside, however, if we are seeking historical facts. Though she never existed in history, four characters in the fictional story did‹the foremost being the remarkable Prioress, Madame Lidoine, who prepared the nuns for their martyrdom with a maternal solicitude. Both the young novice, Sister Constance, and the first Prioress, Madame de Croissy, also existed. Both moreover died on the guillotine.
As for the dominant and highly fictionalized character of Marie of the Incarnation, she too indeed existed, but hardly as a spiritually mature Sub-Prioress longing for martyrdom. Historically she was far more akin to the young and fearful Blanche de la Force. As in the opera, she was in Paris on business when her community was arrested in Compiègne, but she by no means lingered in hopes of joining her sisters on the guillotine. Rather, she immediately fled, vainly hoping, as first cousin of the Duke of Orleans, to join members of his family in Switzerland. Unable to cross the Swiss border, she survived alone and frightened in post-Terror France before returning to Compiègne in the latter half of 1795. Amassing a unique collection of documents left by the martyred community, she would wait almost forty years before setting down her memories of her martyred sisters, then die in 1836 as a paying guest at the Carmel of Sens.
Marie of the Incarnation was not, therefore, at all behind the historical "Act of Consecration" which, historically, came solely from Madame Lidoine. As remarkable in history as she is in the opera, she is nonetheless, for dramatic interest, shown opposing Marie of the Incarnation's veritable one-woman campaign for a community "vow of martyrdom."
Historically, it was Sister Constance who refused to flee the community and accompany her brother home. In spite of her horror of the guillotine, she rose magnificently to the occasion when Madame Lidoine called her, as the youngest, to be the first to mount the fatal scaffold steps. As a good Carmelite, she knelt to receive the Prioress' blessing, then movingly asked, "Permission to die, Mother?" The Prioress' gentle blessing, "Go, my daughter!" was to be repeated fourteen times, as each nun in turn knelt at her feet to ask permission and kiss the miniscule terracotta statuette of the Virgin and Child sequestered in the Prioress' palm.
According to eyewitness accounts Sister Constance, transfixed from that moment of blessing, spontaneously started singing. As she started up the steep steps she gave voice to the words of the psalm praising God for confirming his mercy upon them. Still singing up on the scaffold, we are told that she firmly approached the guillotine's vertical balance-plank unassisted, "like a queen going to receive a diadem." Strapped to the upright plank, she was then swung down and the plank adjusted for the fall of the blade, even as the other nuns took up her chant: "His mercy is confirmed on us!"
For opera-goers, however, the biggest surprise, apart from Sister Marie of the Incarnation's patent lack of courage, is that of learning that one of the most intense scenes in the opera, Madame de Croissy's unforgettable death-bed scene, is purely fictional. Accepting Gertrud von Le Fort's idea that, by grace, the weak may prove stronger than the strong, Bernanos there shows the strong and mature Madame de Croissy assuming Blanche de la Force's own anguished death, thus allowing the weak young novice to die with fortitude.
Bernanos pushed that element of mystic exchange further still in intimating that Blanche's martyr's death is also the death Marie of the Incarnation would have died had she not been forbidden to join her sisters at the guillotine. Thus is the very worthy, proud daughter of royal blood humbled by her helplessness before circumstances, whereas the unworthy, fearful Blanche de la Force whose weakness Marie of the Incarnation had scorned, dies nobly.
The final surprise is that the very last words spoken in the final exchanges between Marie of the Incarnation and the Chaplain were the last words the dying Bernanos ever penned, and, we learn from his manuscripts, were certainly addressed to himself. In them the Chaplain admonished Mother Marie not to think of her sisters on the scaffold searching in vain for her arrival. He urged her to fix her gaze on "another gaze," that is, upon the eyes of Christ which the dying author himself was struggling to focus with his own gaze.
Bernanos' powerful spiritual and literary impact on the script completely beguiled Poulenc on his initial reading of the work and the composer's brilliant musical transmission of that script has, since its first production in 1957, continued to assure the success of this unusual opera world-wide. Today Poulenc's music and Bernanos' elegance of language seems to prove more attractive in a world hungry for meaning.
Professor Emeritus of French (University of Western Ontario), Docteur de l'Université de Paris (Sorbonne), William Bush is known for his writings on Georges Bernanos and the Carmelites of Compiègne.